Buddhism and Pragmatism–Part 2

Buddhism and Pragmatism–Part 2

The Beginnings of Pragmatism

Primary sources are always better than secondary, say your professors, but for simplicity, let’s begin with some secondary before proceeding to the primary. As noted previously, Pragmatism began in America around 1870.

“The most important of the ‘classical pragmatists’ were Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910) and John Dewey (1859–1952). . . The core of pragmatism was the pragmatist maxim, a rule for clarifying the contents of hypotheses by tracing their ‘practical consequences’. In the work of Peirce and James, the most influential application of the pragmatist maxim was to the concept of truth.” [1]

Or, from another source:

“[Pragmatism] has significantly influenced non-philosophers—notably in the fields of law, education, politics, sociology, psychology, and literary criticism . . .

[T]heories and models are to be judged primarily by their fruits and consequences, not by their origins or their relations to antecedent data or facts. The basic idea is presented metaphorically by James and Dewey, for whom scientific theories are instruments or tools for coping with reality. As Dewey emphasized, the utility of a theory is a matter of its problem-solving power; pragmatic coping must not be equated with what delivers emotional consolation or subjective comfort. What is essential is that theories pay their way in the long run—that they can be relied upon time and again to solve pressing problems and to clear up significant difficulties confronting inquirers.”[2]


            All right then, let’s get back to that quotation from the May article, about an idea being, “useful because it is true or that it is true because it is useful.” The context of that observation by William James can be fleshed out by these other statements:

“Grant an idea or belief to be true, . . . what concrete difference will its being true make in one’s actual life? . . . What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”[3]

James goes on to explain how, while a truth may well be empirically validated, (and must be if it is in fact to be concluded as true) the existence of such truths may have present value only when exigent circumstances (need) bring them to the forefront. He uses this analogy:

“If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do and follow it, I save myself. . . I may on another occasion have no use for the house; and then my idea of it, however verifiable, will be practically irrelevant, . . . Yet since almost any object may [someday] become temporarily important, the advantage of having a general stock of extra truths, of ideas that shall be true of merely possible situations, is obvious.”[4]

So, while this all might seem common sense to most people of normal intelligence, in the world of philosophers, when dealing with epistemology (the meaning of truth) the statement from the first installment caused no end of criticism. Philosophers can be an odd bunch.

            Philosophy, like religion and politics, is rife with divergent opinions, claims and counterclaims as to which has a better grasp on truth and on the way things really are—how they got that way and what should we make of them. Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, Descartes, Hume, Locke, Kant, Schopenhauer and many others had their day in the philosophical sun of Western thought.  We will get into the convergence of East and West in the third installment of this series when we consider the intersection of Buddhism and Pragmatism in modern times. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that as Peirce, James and Dewey put forth their respective positions, they did so having to distinguish and set themselves apart from rationalists and those with other perspectives. Note the current battles still being fought over Darwin by those whose biblical beliefs influence their demands for a creationist curriculum in the public schools—despite the many decades of scientific evidence of the validity of Darwin’s analyses. But that’s not the topic here.

            All of philosophy offers conclusions or perspectives on reality. Reality, of course is the nub. Early stages of Western philosophy came predominantly from conceptions—thoughts or ideas formulated by the mind that were meant to explain the world around us. Conceptions of God, creation and ethics consistent with religious belief colored those perspectives. Later, the realization came that it is through our human interaction with the world in the form of sensation and perception which necessarily influences our conclusions about reality. By the time Pragmatism came along, the viewpoints were not so far away from those we hold today. James says,

             “’Reality is in general what truths have to take account of; [footnote in James: ‘Mr. Taylor in his Elements of Metaphysics uses this excellent pragmatic definition’] and the first part of reality from this point of view is the flux of our sensations. . . They are neither true nor false; they simply are.

. . . The second part of reality, as something that our beliefs must also obediently take account of, is the relations  that obtain between our sensations or between their copies in our minds. This part falls into two sub-parts: 1) the relations that are mutable and accidental, as those of date and place; and 2) those that are fixed and essential because they are grounded on the inner natures of their terms—such are likeness and unlikeness. Both sorts of relation are matters of immediate perception. Both are ‘facts.’ But it is the latter kind of fact that forms the more important sub-part of reality for our theories of knowledge.

. . . The third part of reality, additional to these perceptions (tho largely based upon them), is the previous truths of which every new inquiry takes account.

. . . Now however fixed these elements of reality may be, we still have a certain freedom in our dealings with them. . . We read the same facts differently. ‘Waterloo,’ with the same fixed details, spells a ‘victory’ for an Englishman; for a Frenchman it spells a ‘defeat.’

. . . “We receive in short the block of marble, but we carve the statue ourselves.”[5] [We will have more to say on this in the November Quarterly, in discussing correlations with Buddhism].

Dewey has a somewhat different perspective, saying,

“It is often said that pragmatism, unless it is content to be a contribution to mere methodology, must develop a theory of Reality. But the chief characteristic trait of the pragmatic notion of reality is precisely that no theory of Reality in general, überhaupt, is possible or needed. . . Pragmatism is content to take its stand with science; for science finds all such events to be subject-matter of description and inquiry—just like stars and fossils, mosquitoes and malaria, circulation and vision. It also takes its stand with daily life, which finds that such things really have to be reckoned with as they occur interwoven in the texture of events.”[6]

Further along in his essay on “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” Dewey demonstrates his agreement, at least in part, with James on the common understanding of Pragmatism. Dewey identifies the value of a pragmatic theory of intelligence thusly,

“The popular impression that pragmatic philosophy means that philosophy shall develop ideas relevant to the actual crises of life, ideas influential in dealing with them and tested by the assistance they afford, is correct.”. . [T]he pragmatic theory of intelligence means that the function of mind is to project new and more complex ends—to free experience from routine and from caprice. Not the use of thought to accomplish purposes already given either in the mechanism of the body or in that of the existent state of society, but the use of intelligence to liberate and liberalize action, is the pragmatic lesson.”[7]

The pragmatic premise of evaluating truth by its consequences necessarily relies upon an understanding of causality. James analogy of the man lost in the woods finding a cow-path and thereby saving himself implies that he takes an action (choosing the cow-path) and as a result winds up at the house. This is a very simple example of cause and effect. To philosophers, of course, nothing is ever so simple.  Early into a discussion of the conceptual view of novelty and causation, James notes,

“The classic obstacle to pluralism has always been what is known as the ‘principle of causality.’ This principle has been taken to mean that the effect in some way already exists in the cause.”[8]

James notes that while the Scholastics adopted Aristotle’s four principles of causality,

            “[W]hat one generally means by the cause of anything is its ‘efficient’ cause, and in what immediately follows, I shall speak of that alone.

            An efficient cause is scholastically defined as ‘that which produces something else by a real activity proceeding from itself.’ This is unquestionably the view of common sense; and scholasticism in only common sense grown quite articulate. Passing over the many classes of efficient cause which scholastic philosophy specifies, I enumerate three important sub-principles it is supposed to follow from the above definition. Thus: 1. No effect can come into being without a cause. They may be verbally taken; but if, avoiding the word effect, it be taken in the sense that nothing can happen without a cause, it is the famous ‘principle of causality’ which, when combined with the next two principles, is supposed to establish the block-universe, and to render the pluralistic hypothesis absurd.

            2. The effect is always proportionate to the cause, and the cause to the effect.

            3. Whatever is in the effect must in some way, whether formally, virtually, or eminently, have been also in the cause. (‘Formally’ here means that the cause resembles the effect, as when one motion causes another motion; virtually means that the cause somehow involves that effect, without resembling it, as when an artist causes a statue but possesses not himself its beauty; ‘eminently’ means that the cause, though unlike the effect, is superior to it in perfection, as when a man overcomes a lion’s strength by greater cunning.)

            It is plain that each moment of the universe must contain all the causes of which the next moment contains effects, or to put it with extreme concision, it is plain that each moment in its totality causes the next moment. But if the maxim holds firm that [whatever is in the effect must previously have been in some way in the cause]it follows that the next moment can contain nothing genuinely original, and that the novelty that appears to leak into our lives so unremittingly, must be an illusion, ascribable to the shallowness of the perceptual point of view.

            Scholasticism always respected common sense, an in this case escaped the frank denial of all genuine novelty by the vague qualification ‘aliquo modo.’ [one way or another] This allowed the effect also to differ, aliquo modo, from its cause. But conceptual necessities have ruled the situation and have ended, as usual, by driving nature and perception to the wall. A cause and its effect are two numerically discrete concepts, and yet in some inscrutable way the former must ‘produce’ the latter. How can it intelligibly do so, save by already hiding the latter in itself? Numerically two, cause and effect must be generically one, [More in November on the correlation of this conclusion with Buddhism] in spite of the perceptual appearances; and causation changes thus from a concretely experienced relation between differents into one between similars abstractly thought of as more real.”[9]

Coming in November—Part 3,  Correlations Between Buddhism and Pragmatism

[1] Hookway, Christopher, “Pragmatism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),  http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/pragmatism/.

[2] Douglas McDermid, Trent University, Canada. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/pragmati/.

[3] William James, Pragmatism, page 573, reprinted in William James Writings, 1902-1910, volume compilation copyright 1987 by Literary  Classics of the United States, New York, New York..

[4] Ibid.

[5] William James, Pragmatism and Humanism, Lecture VII, reprinted in William James Writings, 1902-1910op cit. pages 593-4.

[6] John Dewey, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” originally published 1917 by Henry Holt [copyright expired]; this quote is from page 27, The Project Gutenberg Ebook of Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude, Release Date: September 14, 2010 [EBook #33727] Produced by Adrian Mastronardi, Turgut Dincer and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net.

[7] Ibid., page 30-1.

[8] William James, Some Problems of Philosophy, Chapter XII Novelty and Causation, reprinted in William James Writings, 1902-1910, op cit. page 1080.

[9] Ibid, pages 1080-1.

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Acknowledgements: See extensive citations within the article.

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